I just arrived in Tennessee for a little sabbatical in the hills where I grew up. As I settled into my old childhood room again for a week or so of rest, I noticed a pile of newspaper articles my mom placed by the toilet. She’s gotten into the habit of putting clippings of articles there that she thinks I’ll enjoy reading while having my special time in the bathroom.
One of the articles was an extraordinary front-page story in the Knoxville News Sentinel about three peace activists who shut down the Y-12 nuclear plant last month in Oak Ridge for more than two weeks.
In the predawn hours of July 28, three unarmed peace activists entered the Y-12 nuclear plant and, over a matter of hours, made their unprecedented way through the layers of security to the very heart of the facility, where they performed a prayerful service, hung “crime-scene” tape and poured human blood as a symbol of the violence of nuclear weapons. One of the intruders was an 82-year-old nun who is now an international celebrity. It’s a contemporary story of David and Goliath, the shepherd boy who took on a giant with nothing but a slingshot.
The article makes a spectacle of how these three folks, whose average age was 67, managed to mosey into one of the most highly secure and potentially deadly facilities in the world. But they chose the spot for a reason.
The Oak Ridge Y-12 plant was responsible for the explosives of the Hiroshima bomb. It has been called “the Fort Knox of Uranium.” The Y-12 plant is the nation’s primary supplier of bomb-grade uranium, and has played a role in the manufacture of every nuclear weapon in the U.S. arsenal, which now flaunts the capacity of more than 50, 000 Hiroshima-size bombs.
The article went on to make some interesting points about national security and international law regarding nuclear arms, raising important questions about what might have happened had the intruders been a group of terrorists instead of the holy rolling trio toting bibles, candles and flowers. And of course it told of the chaos, lawsuits and terminated jobs now eminent at Y-12. It also nodded at the fact that the Y-12 plant was to receive $150 million in federal money this year — as the government continues to dish out $20, 000 every second, more than $1.2 million a minute on war, while the country goes bankrupt.
But one of the most important things the author did was relate the peculiar and courageous act of these three folks in July with the tradition of prophetic resistance to injustice that is thousands of years old. These activists are part of the “Plowshares” movement, which has been performing similar acts of peaceful, prophetic imagination for decades, drawing on the prophetic tradition of old. Their name is derived from the Scriptures in Micah and Isaiah which speak of God’s people “beating their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks … and studying war no more.” It is an image of turning things that have brought death into things that bring life — hence, swords to plowshares, or as we say in Philly, “turning guns into farm tools.”
It’s no coincidence that the Y-12 three had a household hammer that they used on the wall of the building, not so much as an act of substantial transformation, but an act of symbolic action pointing toward a God who wants us to study war no more, and to the Prince of Peace who teaches us to love our enemies.
Before I had finished reading the article, I got a buzz on my phone (because I forgot to turn it off for my restful time here in Tennessee). It was a message from another activist friend of mine, letting me know that today, Sept. 9, was the anniversary of the first Plowshares action in 1980, which was right outside of Philadelphia. Eight faith-based activists went onto the base of General Electric (now Lockheed Martin, the biggest weapons contractor in the world), and performed an action (very similar to the recent one here in Oak Ridge), praying, pouring blood and hammering on the nose cones of nuclear missiles being produced there. That action has inspired more than 95 others all over the world over the past three decades, including the one a few weeks ago here in Tennessee. I thought it Providential that the message came before I had even finished the newspaper article, so here I am writing at 2 a.m.
Certainly not all of us will imitate their actions, or even agree with these wild nuns and sassy seniors (and some young uns, too) — but hopefully they raise the questions, like the prophets of old did: What are we doing to interrupt injustice? What are we doing to get in the way of violence and death and war? What are we doing to transform weapons into farm tools? May they inspire us to do something beautiful to disarm the world.
On that note … back to my sabbatical.
Shane Claiborne is a prominent author, speaker, activist, and founding member of the Simple Way. He is one of the compilers of Common Prayer, a new resource to unite people in prayer and action. Shane is also helping develop a network called Friends Without Borders which creates opportunities for folks to come together and work together for justice from around the world.